Today, I want to finish up what I started a month ago when I introduced Harold Best’s definition of worship in my post Defining Worship. In that post, I extracted Best’s definition, being that worship is “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God”.
Here I want to unpack that a bit further.
First, the concept of continuousness. Best says in Unceasing Worship (p 18):
Worship does not stop and start, despite our notions to the contrary. Once we place emphasis on specific times, places and methods, we misunderstand worship’s biblical meaning. Worship may ebb and flow, may take on various appearances and may be unconscious or conscious, intense and ecstatic or quiet and commonplace, but it is continuous.
I want to pause here and consider the idea of “unconscious worship”. Most worship leaders will implore you during worship times on Sunday to “give your full attention to God”. This is a question of intensity and focus. But what happens when you go to work on Monday and have to think really hard about how to solve a client’s problem, or to draw up a design or to write up a complex formula? In my experience (and I’m being honest here), I don’t often think about God. When I am drafting a legal contract, I am don’t sing “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee…” whilst I am typing “Subject to the payment of rent, the Landlord leases the Premises to the Tenant” etc. I think my head will explode! And my secretary will think I’m nuts!
But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped worshipping because as I have said elsewhere on this blog, your work is also worship.
So worship changes intensity, it ebbs and flows, but it never stops. It’s continuous. I like the idea of “unconscious” worship!
Next, is the concept of outpouring.
Outpouring implies a direction. You pour into or towards something. Overflowing is different to outpouring. Overflowing happens in every direction. When you fill up a bucket to its brim, it overflows everywhere. But pouring out has a sense of intention.
I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who said that if you look at how adherents of other religions worship, you can take away all the external trappings (like clothing style or music) and it wouldn’t look too different to what Christians do on a Sunday. This is true. The difference (and the key one) is one of direction, because as I have said before, everyone is worshipping something or put another way, nobody does not worship. The basis of that difference is being to able to answer the question why the Christian God is deserving of our outpouring more than any other God. That’s too big a question for me to deal with in this post, but hopefully one day I will be able to give a strong cogent answer to my friend (I suspect I may actually not give her a concrete answer, but we will probably ask a series of questions and come up with the answer together!).
Of “outpouring”, Best says this (p 19):
It implies lavishness and generosity: when I pour something, I give it up; I let it go. Dripping is not outpouring; there is space between the drops. But in pouring, the flow is organically and consistently itself. In spite of a mixed simile, pouring is seamless.
The lavishness and generosity of outpouring is illustrated in the Gospel story of Mary and the alabaster box (which I have looked at elsewhere on this blog). But here, I like Best’s comment about “giving up” and “letting go” the most. Worship is about surrender. When you worship, you are really surrendering your whole life to God, or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1, offering your whole life as a living sacrifice.
The thing with pouring, or with sacrifice (for that matter) is that once the act is done, it is irretrievably done. You can’t take it back. You have either poured it out, or you have been consumed by fire. There’s no going back to the way things were. How we continue in that process is by the grace of God, knowing that God never lets us out of His hands once we commit our lives to Him.
Lastly, worship cannot be self-contained, as Best says, “even when it barely dribbles out”. In the story of Mary, the Gospel writers say that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s worship. In this sense, worship and witness are really one comprehensive reality.
Okay, now enough of the big, complicated ideas.
Let me reduce this into somewhat more simple terms: Worship is like being married to someone. If you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go! The fact of marriage means that you give priority to your wife. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes not. Your daily routine reflects that priority. You always come home to her; you have time for her (even though you have a lot of other things on your plate) and you share your whole life with her.
Sometimes, you give fuller effect to that priority. For example, you would like to watch the cricket (actually this is a bad example because I abhor watching the cricket!) but you decide to spend some quality time sipping tea with her and chatting about your day. You might call this “quiet time” (I know, I couldn’t help chucking in a religious term). Still more intensely, there will be times when you pay especial honour to her, and everything you do is about her: you write her a card saying how beautiful she is, what a great person she is, you buy her dinner, you give her flowers.
But yet, there will be times when you don’t pay her enough attention. You do things that make her upset. You’re inconsiderate. You put your own desires above hers. (Okay, I am talking about myself, but using the “you” pronoun gives me a sense of solidarity with the rest of you). That doesn’t mean that I stop being married.
And that, my friends, is very much like our worship. It makes me wonder whether this is why the New Testament church is often described as the bride of Christ.
At the end of the day, worship is relational. When we enter into relationship with God, we have changed the direction of our worship from ourselves, from other gods and things which seek mastery over us, and we are now directing our worship towards God. It doesn’t always feel like we are worshipping, or that God is at the centre of it all, or that God is even close to us, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, we’re coming home again.